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Friday, February 13, 2009
Hot Button: NFC West

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The top issues facing each team in the division:

Arizona Cardinals

 
  Rob Tringali/Getty Images
  Will Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin be in Arizona next season? Only time will tell.

Primary issue: Maintaining continuity. The NFC champs have already parted with offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. They need to re-sign quarterback Kurt Warner so the offense can keep a very good thing going.

Warner will continue to consider retirement even while agent Mark Bartelstein begins discussions on a new contract.

Solution: The feeling is that Warner will come back as long as the Cardinals maintain a similar philosophy on offense, show diligence in upgrading their roster and follow through with a serious contract offer.

Secondary concern: Resolving the Anquan Boldin situation. Boldin keeps telling the team he wants a trade. The team has other priorities in the short term, but everyone benefits if the Cardinals can find a way to fix this situation before training camp.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East

Boldin has lost significant leverage since midseason. His injuries and relative lack of production in the postseason dovetailed with Larry Fitzgerald's emergence as the NFL's most dominant receiver. The Cardinals' overall team success also drains leverage from Boldin.

Solution: The Cardinals should consider trading Boldin if another team offers more than what the Cowboys paid the Lions for receiver Roy Williams. The upcoming scouting combine will provide an opportunity for the Cardinals and Boldin's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to gauge a potential market, should Arizona choose to go that route.


San Francisco 49ers

Primary issue: Identifying a quarterback. The 49ers have gone from Alex Smith to Trent Dilfer to Shaun Hill to J.T. O'Sullivan and back to Hill -- all in the last two seasons. Hill remains the favorite for 2009 after generally playing well in 2008, but the 49ers have postponed naming a starter while they consider their options.

 
  Joel Auerbach/US Presswire
  Shaun Hill finished the 2008 season as the starting quarterback in San Francisco.

The 49ers went through last offseason refusing to name a starter, and look at where it got them. They divided practice reps between Smith and Hill through the start of training camp, then watched O'Sullivan win an ugly race. Head coach Mike Nolan was out of work by midseason and O'Sullivan lost his job the following week.

Solution: The 49ers need to feel good enough about one of their quarterbacks to name him the starter before training camp. Hill should be the obvious choice based on current personnel. Legitimate teams name their quarterbacks before August.

Secondary issue: Upgrading the pass rush. The 49ers' defense proved more effective once Mike Singletary replaced Nolan. The late-season schedule certainly helped, but the 49ers' stronger commitment to a 3-4 scheme also paid off.

No scheme can succeed over the long term without a strong pass rush. The 49ers haven't had one since ... when? Adding the relentless Justin Smith last offseason helped, but he's more of an all-around player than an all-out pass-rusher.

Solution: Every team wants more pass-rushers. The odds are against finding an immediately dominant one in the draft. The 49ers will need to make the right choices in free agency. In Arizona, veteran Bertrand Berry helped make the Cardinals' pass rush just good enough in key situations. The 49ers, meanwhile, found themselves stuck with Tully Banta-Cain. They must do better in free agency this time.


Seattle Seahawks

Primary issue: Getting key players healthy. Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones and Patrick Kerney are arguably the three most important players on the Seahawks. All are in their 30s and all missed significant playing time while rehabbing injuries last season.

 
  Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
  Matt Hasselbeck played in only seven games for the Seahawks this past season.

The Seahawks can contend in the NFC West again if their best players can play at a high level. They'll suffer through another disappointing season if Hasselbeck, Jones and Kerney spend too much time in the training room.

Solution: The Seahawks will need to monitor each player's practice repetitions through training camp and possibly into the season.

A renewed commitment to the running game could help shield Hasselbeck's back from additional punishment.

Kerney is making every-down money, and then some, but his surgically repaired shoulder might benefit from a situational role.

The team does expect Jones' knee to be ready for the season. Resting him through training camp could be difficult as the team installs a new offense.

Secondary issue: Upgrading the pass rush. Seattle has spent large sums and invested considerable draft capital in its linebackers and cornerbacks. The team won't get the desired return on those investments without more production from the front four.

Solution: Getting Kerney healthy would help the pass rush immediately. The Seahawks are also banking on their new coaching staff to get more from young players, including first-day draft choices Lawrence Jackson and Darryl Tapp.


St. Louis Rams

Primary issue: Rebuilding the offensive line. Last season, the Rams fooled us into thinking a healthy Orlando Pace would largely solve their problems on the offensive line. Although Pace battled injuries through part of the season, the line struggled even when he was healthy.

 
  Kevin Terrell/Getty Images
  Orlando Pace was forced to fight through injuries again in 2008.

Releasing Pace to free up $6 million in needed salary-cap room would set back the line in the short term, but the Rams are rebuilding up front even if Pace stays. Left guard Jacob Bell and right guard Richie Incognito need a better center between them.

The Rams have invested too much money in quarterback Marc Bulger and running back Steven Jackson to let their line deteriorate further.

Solution: Selecting an offensive tackle among the top two choices worked out well for the Rams when they selected Pace first overall in 1997. The Rams are picking second overall this year, which means they might have a chance to draft the highest-rated tackle on their board.

Teams are best off when they can find and develop starting-caliber offensive linemen in the middle and later rounds. The Rams have failed to do that. As a result, they might need to use one or more of their earlier choices on an offensive tackle. Finding a reasonably priced veteran in free agency might also help.

Secondary issue: Strengthening the middle of the defense. The Rams allowed at least 176 yards rushing seven times last season. They allowed 109 yards rushing to the Cardinals' Tim Hightower when Arizona wasn't running the ball very well against anyone.

Solution: Get bigger at defensive tackle. La'Roi Glover gave the Rams as much as his aging knees would allow, but he was always most dangerous as a pass-rusher. The Rams need a bigger body to pair inside with Adam Carriker. Carriker has talent and plays hard, but he needs some help.